The messy reality of Post-Constantinian church history, part one

Church history after Constantine is a messier affair than many would like to believe. On the one hand, there is something of a triumphalist reading that makes Constantine a saint and the triumph of the Church a Good Thing that brought great benefit to Christ’s people. This view is pretty quickly weakened by discovering the activity of the emperors who supported theology and legislation contrary to the Triumphant Church’s interests.

The other view, one raised by Jnana in the comments on my last post, is the idea that the True Believers went underground after Constantine, and (at least in the version I’ve heard) all we need to do to find them is follow the trail of blood left by the activities of the Catholic/Orthodox Church up to the Reformation. The best discussion of this view that I’ve read is by Baptist scholar D H Williams in Evangelicals and Tradition; it is popular amongst Anabaptists, Quakers, and low evangelicals such as Baptists, many of whom trace their spiritual heritage to movements of the radical Reformation who were persecuted by both Roman Catholics and the national churches of the magisterial Reformation such as Anglicans or Lutherans.

Neither of these views is entirely wrong.

But the truth is different.

I shall address in this series of posts the second view, although in addressing it, I believe the first shall receive some refutation as well. For a methodological point, I shall use the traditional/common English names for all of the groups discussed, even if some of them presuppose later developments or were never used by their own adherents.

What are the activities the post-Constantinian church engaged in that the believers of this persecution view are thinking upon? Obviously, persecution. The driving out of their churches of people with divergent views. At times, the use of violence against them.

My first point, then, is Paul of Samosata. Paul of Samosata was a Monarchianist in the 200s (that is, well before Constantine), and the people of his local church as well as a council of bishops deposed him for heresy. I bring him up because this sort of activity against bishops on trial for heresy is exactly the sort of thing Constantine was accused of introducing. I argue that this is the sort of thing the church would have been up to, anyway. What imperial favour did was enable them to do it in a much more organised way and with better resources. Excommunication and deposition of clerics is not a Constantinian development.

Furthermore, when we take Paul of Samosata in conjunction with the Gnostics, we realise that there were boundaries of orthodoxy before Constantine, even if the precise definitions of Nicaea were not yet hashed out. Irenaeus of Lyons’ book about Gnosticism is called Against the Heresies; people were concerned about what sort of doctrine was being taught to the members of the church and were trying to make sure that only pure Gospel truth was on tap — I imagine that Gnostic circles would have been up to much the same; to my knowledge, we have insufficient evidence on that point.

The Gnostics are my second point. If the church in the fourth century after 312ish were really bent on persecuting all of its enemies, one would think the Gnostics to be a prime target. It seems they weren’t. My theory about Gnostics in the fourth century is that, since the Empire was favouring catholic Christianity, most of them just converted (a lot like pagan aristocrats), and their religious meetings and leaders couldn’t maintain themselves in the face of the growing catholic Church. That’s my theory. More of a hypothesis, really.

Moving on, then, to the actual groups targeted by the Constantinian Church. When Constantine secured his position as Emperor in the West after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (28 October, 312), one of the things he wanted to do was clean up the affairs of his new-found religion. So he got a council together to deal with the North African Donatist Schism. This council was headed by the Bishop of Rome, and Rome decided in favour of, for want of a better word, we would call catholic Christianity in North Africa — although doctrinally they and the Donatists are not too far apart.

The fate of the Donatists was to carry on for centuries as a separate church without imperial support, and eventually being targeted by the long arm of the law in the 400s until the Arian Vandals came in the 420s and completely changed the whole shape of North African Christianity by being far more systematic and violent persecutors of non-Arians than the catholic imperial church had yet been of Arians or Donatists. The religious landscape of North Africa is unclear to me after Justinian’s reconquest in the 500s; certainly, if the post-Constantinian church ever went underground, it was in North Africa after the Caliphate conquered in the late 600s.

The Arians were next. In 324, after defeating Licinius in civil war, Constantine found himself emperor of the entire Roman world. One of his early moves was to try and clean house in the eastern churches as he had in the West. When the presbyter Arius wouldn’t stop saying things that Constantine thought to be rather silly, a church council was put together to deal with the matter. They met at Nicaea and approved a doctrinal statement you can read here.

This statement of faith is one with which the groups who believe that the Nicene Church persecuted ‘true’ believers can get behind. It confesses the full divinity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ without qualification. Arianism, on the other hand, preaches that Jesus is not fully divine but only like the Father and that he exists entirely in time, which would make him a lot like us. Which was kind of the point, but the Nicene argument is that what we precisely need is someone who is not like us (although, like us at the same time; hence Ephesus I and Chalcedon/Constantinople II).

Then came … Athanasius?? And here’s where Constantine’s church policy gets really messy for all involved, and why imperial favour is not necessarily good for the Church. Arius claimed to have made a full recovery from his heresy to Constantine, but his repentance did not meet the requirements of his bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria (saint of the week here). So Athanasius, not for the last time, found himself in exile — Athanasius, the staunchest defender of Nicene Christianity, found himself exiled by an emperor who was promoting Nicaea. This is because Constantine’s church policy was mostly about keeping the peace and finding unity at prices sometimes too high for his bishops.

After Constantine

The first group persecuted by the imperial church after the death of Constantine in 337 was … well … Nicene Christianity. Constantine’s sons were not all gung-ho Nicenes, especially Constantius (who seems a nasty piece of work to me) who had Athanasius exiled again more than once. Indeed, it was about the rule of Constantius that Jerome made the remark, ‘The whole world groaned to find itself Arian.’

Debates ranged and things went back and forth for much of the fourth century between different kinds of Arians and different kinds of Nicenes and different levels of commitment on the part of the emperors. Eventually, in 381, under the Emperor Theodosius I, Nicene Christianity gained its victory at the First Council of Constantinople, whose version of the Creed I’ve translated here. Interestingly enough, one of the victims of politics-meets-church was Gregory of Nazianzus, a Nicene who felt that Constantinople I didn’t go far enough. He went from Bishop of Constantinople to Bishop of a Cappadocian Backwater in no time at all.

381 is a potentially important date. Around this time, Theodosius I promulgated his anti-pagan, anti-heretical laws that banned all sacrifices and removed the right to assembly and worship from heretical groups. To what extent such decrees were implemented is an interesting question, given that Justinian I (r. 527-565) hired John of Ephesus to clear up pagan activities in Constantinople. Earlier, in the 420s, Archbishop Nestorius went on his own heretic-hunt in Constantinople that endeared him to no one.

Next time: Groups targeted by the Church from the late 300s onwards.

Part three: Orthodox victims of imperial/secular governmental activity besides Athanasius.

Part four: Also, the Inquisition (Spanish an otherwise; did you expect that?). And thoughts on ecclesiastical-governmental relations at large.

The Bible in the Ancient Church: Humility and Christ

Greek Majuscule Bible, ‘Codex Vaticanus’ (aka ‘B’); probably from Egypt during Athanasius’ lifetime (4th c)

My final talk on Ancient Christianity in Cyprus was ‘The Bible in the Ancient Church.’ Most of what I had to say I have said here before. I discussed allegory and typology, bringing up Melito of Sardis and Ephraim the Syrian. I also discussed the literal meaning of Scripture, and read out a passage from John Chrysostom’s commentary on Romans.

But what was new territory for me, really, was to discuss humility before Scripture and Christocentric interpretation.

What do the ancients say about humility?

The general attitude is embodied in a few sayings as follows:

Antony of Egypt once said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”’[1]

Abba Poemen said, “As the breath which comes out of his nostrils, so does a man need humility and the fear of God.”

Isaac the Syrian, although a bit later than we are looking this week, once said, ‘No one has understanding if he is not humble, and he who lacks humility lacks understanding.’

Another story out of Egypt tells of a group of believers discussing a passage of Scripture. Everyone gave his own interpretation, speaking his opinion and mind as it came to him. The eldest believer there remained silent, however. One of the others said to him, ‘What about you? What do you think?’ He replied that he did not know, for he was not wise enough to discern the meanings of the Holy Scriptures.

I do not know that we should be so humble as that, but I do think the idea of approaching the Bible with humility is important. When we look at our many fractured denominations, not just between Protestant, Catholic, and various Eastern churches, but within evangelical Protestantism, each claiming that it has the one, true interpretation of Scripture, we should realise that perhaps some humility is in order.

Christocentric interpretation is probably even more important than humility in the face of Scripture. In his book On the Incarnation of the Word of God, Athanasios of Alexandria, Egypt, writes:

And so following the guidance of the sacred word we may now say fearlessly and unhesitatingly that the Son of man came down from heaven, and that the Lord of Glory was crucified: because in virtue of the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God became Son of man, and the Lord of Glory was crucified in (the nature of) the Son of man. What more is there need of? It would take too long to go into details: for time would fail me, were I to try to examine and explain everything which could be brought to bear on this subject. For one who wished to do this would have to study and read the whole Bible. For what is there which does not bear on this, when all Scripture was written with reference to this? (ch. 8)

As far as Athanasios is concerned, the whole point of Scripture is to point towards Christ, either as shadow, type, prophecy in the Old Testament or as fulfilment, proclamation, expectation in the New. This is the general paradigm for reading Scripture.

So we read Irenaios of Lyons, a man born in Izmir, writing in the late 100s about Christ as the second Adam and then going so far as to make parallels between Eve and Mary; he argues that just as sin entered through the disobedience of one woman, so did redemption begin through the obedience of another. When we read this, we don’t have to agree with him. But I, for one, applaud his desire to apply the Old Testament to the Gospel.

If the Bible does not have supernatural significance, if the events of the Old Testament, the bloody, violent purging of the Promised Land and the bloody, violent worship in the Tabernacle, hold only historical value about the beliefs of the people of Israel, I have no business with the Old Testament; I would rather read Homer or Vergil. But if they are part of something bigger, part of the grand narrative of God’s cosmic outworking of redemption and salvation for all of humankind, from Adam to Christ’s Second Coming, and if I can see Christ’s fulfilment of all things in the Old Testament—that’s a Scripture worth knowing.

Furthermore, it’s an approach to the Old Testament that is approved by the New: Christ is the Passover Lamb, Matthew references Christ fulfilling OT prophecies, Christ refers to himself fulfilling statements in the Psalms, Paul refers to an allegorical or typological meaning of Hagar and Sarah, Hebrews sees the Tabernacle and Temple worship as shadows and figures of what has come in Christ, 1 Peter sees Noah’s Ark as a prefigurement of baptism.

These are the ones that sprang to mind immediately while writing my first draft. There are no doubt more. With this attitude and this nexus of thinking in hand, I think we can come up with better exegesis and better preaching and deeper ethics than we often do. And maybe we’ll even smooth over some disputes.


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. B. Ward. Kalamazoo: 1975, Antony 7. See also Abraham of Nathpar, On Prayer 3, in Brock, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer. Kalamazoo: 1987, 193; Martyrius (Sahdona), The Book of Perfection, ‘On the Office,’ 10, in Brock 1987, 206.

Irenaeus and Athanasius

I almost typed Athanasios. I’ve been Hellenising everything all week. Tonight, I spoke about the ecclesiastical history of Cyprus from Barnabas to Epiphanius to 478 when Cyprus became autocephalous. Tomorrow, it’s Trinity and Mission, with a brief history of Christology from Irenaios to Khalkedon.

I’ve fallen behind in Read the Fathers whilst in Cyprus, and tonight, doing my catch-up, I found something interesting in Irenaios. He is trying to prove that all the generations and processions of the Gnostic Basilidians are false, and does so by demonstrating that light begotten of light is necessarily one in substance, not multiple:

If, again, the Æons were derived from Logos, Logos from Nous, and Nous from Bythus, just as lights are kindled from a light—as, for example, torches are from a torch—then they may no doubt differ in generation and size from one another; but since they are of the same substance with the Author of their production, they must either all remain for ever impassible, or their Father Himself must participate in passion. For the torch which has been kindled subsequently cannot be possessed of a different kind of light from that which preceded it. Wherefore also their lights, when blended in one, return to the original identity, since that one light is then formed which has existed even from the beginning. But we cannot speak, with respect to light itself, of some part being more recent in its origin, and another being more ancient (for the whole is but one light); nor can we so speak even in regard to those torches which have received the light (for these are all contemporary as respects their material substance, for the substance of torches is one and the same), but simply as to [the time of] its being kindled, since one was lighted a little while ago, and another has just now been kindled. (Irenaios, Against the Heresies, 2.17.4)

This is not dissimilar to arguments used by Athanasios which I shall discuss tomorrow night — but Athanasios is using them to prove positively that Jesus is homoousios with the Father:

We see that the radiance from the sun is integral to it, and that the substance of the sun is not divided or diminished; but its substance is entire, and its radiance perfect and entire, and the radiance does not diminish the substance of the light, but is as it were a genuine offspring from it. thus we see that the Son is begotten not from without, but ‘from the Father,’ and that Father remains entire, while the ‘stamp of his substance’ [Heb 1:3] exists always and preserves the likeness and image without alteration. (Athanasios, Orations Against the Arians 2.33)

Here we see the intellectual heritage of Athanasios, standing in the trajectory that leads from Irenaios straight to Kyrillos. I mean, Cyril. (With whom I saw Athanasios in a big ikon at Faneromeni church the other day.)

καληνύχτα

Reading the ‘Life of St Antony’

I have blogged about St Antony and his Life published (if not composed) by St Athanasius before, as visible on the Desert Fathers page of this site. When we come in front a text such as the Life of St Antony, the questions that tend to confront us — especially if philosophical materialists (matter is all there is) — are manifold.

How much of this is even true? We have Antony visible wrestling with invisible opponents. The sick are cured. Demons are cast out. People hear the disembodied voices of the demons as they tempt Antony. He lives for twenty years alone on a sparse diet but is as hale and hearty as ever when he comes out of seclusion. He has visions both of demons and of Christ.

People who want to determine whether an account is true or not tend to dissect things on their likelihood as well as how well attested they are. The likelihood of any miracle is, by definition, scanty. And our evidence for Antony’s miracles primarily comes from this text written probably by an Alexandrian and certainly serving the polemical purposes of Athanasius vs. the ‘Arians’ — if the Nicenes can produce such a saint, how could they be wrong?

Of course, one could easily point to the vast wealth of material that gives us miracle stories, exorcisms, and visions in the acts of the martyrs and lives of later saints. Perhaps these could be used as a bar — people in similar circumstances do similar things. May these miracles be not so unlikely after all?

However, immediately it will be pointed out that the earlier stories are unreliable because they were often written after the fact and clearly embellished to promote the Christian message. And the later stories are clearly modelling themselves on the Life of St Antony. Therefore, the argument that holiness manifests itself in similar ways throughout history will not convince our imagined materialist.

In fact, short of witnessing such a miracle oneself, I don’t think that a confirmed materialist could ever be convinced that the Life of Antony is 100% true. Furthermore, the apparatus of historical investigation cannot either prove or disprove the events recounted in this story. ‘Likelihood’ cannot be used as a criterion if the miraculous is in play, short of discounting all miracles (as the materialist will).

What use, then, is the Life of Antony? We cannot prove it true. We cannot prove it false. What do we do with it?

We must ask ourselves why the text was written in the first place and for whom it was written. It claims to have been written by Athanasius to provide the ideal monastic lifestyle for the reading pleasure and edification of his fellow clergy. The point of the Life of Antony is not historical information but edifying example.

Therefore, what this text shows us is what this particular Egyptian community — Alexandrians who admired the Desert Fathers, perhaps the Desert Fathers themselves a bit — values and strives towards. These people value commitment to Christ above all. They value what Franciscans will later call ‘evangelical poverty.’ They value constant prayer. They believe in demons but also in the greater power of Christ at work in the Christian to overcome the demons. These things and more are what we can take away from this text.

At this point, when we look to it as reflective of a particular historical community rather than a straight historical narrative, the Life of St Antony takes on a different force and becomes disturbing in a new way. Rather than challenging the philosophical materialist (matter is all there is), it aims for the heart of the practical materialist (matter is all that matters).

This is the value, historical and philosophical, of documents such as the Life of St Antony. These are the questions we should ask them — questions that will provoke the text to question us as well.

More on Pelagians and Myself

There have been some comments (finally!) on my post about Pelagians, so I should set the record straight on a few things. If you are here for Pelagians and sex, you can skip the stuff about me and scroll down to the bold words “Pelagians, Augustine, and Sex”.

First, I have rightly got into trouble for this:

“Clearly misinformation and caricature are the best things to fill our devotional books. Thank you, Northumbria Community.”

That was gall, not righteousness. Mea culpa.

Second, I have been accused of two things: never having read Augustine and being “one of the Calvinist illiterates who believes whatever [my] deranged pastor tells” me. So, these require full treatment, I feel.

  1. I have not, it is true, read much of Augustine. I have read The Confessions, various homilies, On Grace and Freewill and things he says about demonology. Oh, and portions of De Doctrina Christiana and of On Marriage.
  2. I am not Calvinist. This is an amusing thought, given this post and this post amongst others. I wish I were more easily labelled (does Franciscan Orthodox — Eastern — Wesleyan Prayer-book Anglican even cover enough bases?), but if we wish to concern ourselves with grace & freewill, I prefer the imperfect ideas of John Cassian’s 13th Conference, sometimes called “Massilianism” (NOT the Eastern heresy “Messalianism”, an unrelated thing) or “Semi-Pelagianism”. Catholic scholar Boniface Ramsey prefers to see Cassian as Semi-Augustinian; Eastern Orthodox Scholar AMC Casiday wishes to eliminate all “semi’s” from the discussion and read the authors on their own terms.
  3. Also, I don’t believe whatever my pastor tells me, deranged or not. I’m unfortunately critical of most sermons, although those at my local church do better than many elsewhere.

Pelagians, Augustine, and Sex

I will agree with my opponent, rey, that Augustine and the tradition that follows from him, as well as many of the Fathers, had a confused view of sex. While I disagree categorically with diagnosing any historical person as “a classic case of insane transference whereby a nutcase asserts that everyone else is as messed up as he is” or even as necessarily sexually deviant — except in cases such as Nero, and even then the record is incredibly biased against him — because we don’t know enough about him. The only non-modern people we really know that much about are Cicero and the merchant of Prato, and I don’t think we should diagnose them, either.

Augustine’s animosity towards intercourse no doubt comes from his own previous years with a concubine with whom he had at least one child. At the point of his conversion, although St. Monica wished to arrange a marriage with a lovely young lady, Augustine devoted himself to the monastic life (contra rey: “He remarried a wealthy Catholic woman, and this helped him achieve the status of bishop. [To be bishop, you needed wealth.]”) We know of this from the most popular text of Late Antique Latin Christianity, The Confessions. That the only sex Augustine ever had was in a more or less sinful state (concubines are a foggy area even to ancient Christians sometimes) no doubt helps contribute to his views on sexual intercourse.

Concerning Augustine on sex in marriage, see “On the Good of Marriage.” Here we see some rather convoluted things, and it is clear that Augustine would prefer a world without sexual intercourse, but he has to admit that it is not actually sinful in marriage. Given the enormous quantity of Augustine’s corpus, he may have said elsewhere that sexual intercourse in marriage is evil; I know that Aquinas at least implied it in the 13th century. Indeed, it is rather absurd to imagine that living like a celibate with your own wife is the best pathway; yet he still concedes that having intercourse is allowable. That which is allowed is not sin, is not evil.

This odd sort of teaching is the sort of thing that comes from monastic discourse throughout the Mediterranean and Near East and is not peculiar to Augustine. People seem to imagine that, while it’s okay to have sex and raise children, it’s best to be celibate. I have discussed this issue in relation to St. Gregory of Nazianzus here. I do not agree with these people (much to my wife’s relief). If Julian called St. Augustine out on this silliness, this is a good thing.

Regarding rey’s statement that one needed wealth to be a bishop in Late Antiquity, I would like evidence. I do not think that this is true. One certainly tended to need class, but class and wealth are not the same thing. If we consider how many poor ascetics were made bishop, I cannot see how wealth is a prerequisite to the office of bishop.

Moving on to grace. Rey says, “Grace is not magic power to enable you to do things you couldn’t do before.” No one ever said that it is. Gratia, lexically, as my opponent has said, is favour. It is:

Favour which one finds with others, esteem, regard, liking, love, friendship

as well as:

Favour which one shows to another, mark of favour, kindness, courtesy, service, obligation (Lewis & Short’s Latin Dictionary; I don’t yet have the OLD — apologies).

In Souter’s A Glossary of Later Latin to 600 A.D. we also find this amongst the usual suspects:

any benefit or blessing from God.

Gratia in the second sense involves action. If an Emperor shows favour to me, he is likely to use his power to help me. For example, we could say that when St. Savvas entreated the Emperor Justinian for help in his monasteries against dissenters and raiders, Justinian showed his favour, his gratia, to St. Savvas by helping reorder the monasteries and build a fortress against the raiders. This is favour, is it not?

So, when we say that we are saved by God’s grace, that means that God has done something to help us. We are saved by God’s favour, which inevitably involves action. When we say that God’s grace helps us to do good, that means that he, through his favour towards us, chooses to help us do a good action. Grace is not power, no, but it implies the use thereof.

Grace is not, however, as the lengthy comment contends, mercy. There is no hint of mercy within the lexical range. Latin words for mercy are clementia and misericordia. These all have to do with having pity upon someone. Indeed, mercy and favour are related; they are not synonymous.

All of this is to say that, for a Latin-speaker, God’s grace would most certainly have helped us do good as a real possibility.

And Greek only bolsters our case, as we note the third meaning of charis in the LSJ:

in concrete sense, a favour done or returned, boon, charin pherein tini confer a favour on one, do a thing to oblige him

When Paul speaks of being saved by God’s grace, he does not mean that God saves us by his mercy. He means that God saves us for no merit of our own. He looks upon us with favour, “not weighing our merits but pardoning our offences” (BCP). Or, to bring out my evangelical youth, “When you get what you don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing” (the Newsboys).

Given that grace has both the sense, in Late Latin as well as in Greek, to be both favour and action done out of favour, then verses such as Noah having found grace in God’s eyes are clearly not about God giving him power to do a good action. This is a different question altogether, for it is another use of the same word within its lexical range. Words have nuance, and we always need context. To imagine that grace always means mercy is illiterate, in my opinion.

Re Col. 4:6: “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man,” I would argue that LSJ’s first definition of charis — outward grace or favour, beauty — works best. Let your speech be always beautiful and favourable to others.

The problem with Pelagianism is the assertion that God will not help us do good. Pelagians teach that our will is untarnished and capable of doing good all the time and doing enough good to save us. God’s grace, whether favour or mercy, does not help us in this endeavour. Woe to me, if I am the only responsible for my salvation! I know the weight of my sins. How can I be free of them save by the favour of God that pardons my offences?

Most of the second comment our friend rey made is about my alleged Calvinism. It does, however, include this:

The Celtic church was Pelagian.

This may be true. I, personally, only have the evidence from the Venerable Bede concerning Germanus’ visit to Britain in the 5th century that was meant to stamp out Pelagianism. I do know, however, that the big seventh- and eighth-century issues as we see in the Life of St. Cuthbert seem largely to be about the date of Easter and monastic foundations, not Pelagianism.

We must remember that the Late Antique/Early Mediaeval/Byzantine world was still very connected, even with a few barbarian kingdoms around. The Celtic monastic foundations (ie. Iona) included in their libraries Latin editions of the Mediterranean Fathers such as Basil & Co (Basil’s is the only name I can remember). Furthermore, according to an article I read a couple of years ago, they had much in common with St. Maximus the Confessor (Eastern theologian of the 600’s).

If the Mediterranean Church chose to do away with Pelagianism, despite any politicking that inevitably went on, it did so for good reason. These reasons were ultimately not those given by Celtic Daily Prayer in the original post. They were the issues of grace and freewill. The Celtic Church was connected to the Mediterranean Church, and if she leaned more towards John Cassian than towards Augustine, she was in good company (see the ENTIRE EASTERN CHURCH).

The Eastern Church, however, also turns away from Pelagianism even as it anathematises Augustinian doctrines of predestination as heresy. From what I’ve seen, in some poems from Iona, the life of St. Columba, the Voyage of Brenden, Patrick’s autobiography, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, and so forth, the insular Celtic Church was not at odds with the Mediterranean Church and out-and-out Pelagian but, rather, had many things in common with the Eastern Church, which also explains the clashes in the seventh-century, since Latin West and Greek East were starting their own clashes at about the same time.

Note also that if the Mediterranean Church was not monolithic by any means, neither were the Celts on these Isles. Thus, even if many were Pelagians, it is likely that many weren’t, just as many in the Mediterranean world were not Augustinian.

Finally, rey took exception to my statement:

Whether you believe in the talking snake or not, the whole point of Gen 3 is to explain the very real condition of humanity as being basically cursed and sinful, fallen, lost.

Apparently, this is “illiteracy mixed with lies,” because Gen 3 “shows how apes became human.” If we are to read Gen 3 literally, this reading cannot work. And if we are to read Gen 3 allegorically, we are in sparse company when we read it that way. I do not even know where to begin figuring out the hermeneutics that led to rey’s position.

So, I shall state the following instead. Rey says that the Fall is “a Manichean myth handed down by word of mouth among the illiterates since Augustine’s time.”

According to St. Irenaeus (I am likely to blend in Athanasius — apologies), the second-century apologist (a full two centuries before Augustine), humanity was created in innocency. This is what we see in the chapters before Genesis 3. Our forebears naturally did what was right, but were like children. They did not know really know right from wrong. They could not fully perceive. However, God had a plan that He would strengthen them and enable them to grow into understanding. Then they would be like Him, knowing right from wrong.

But the humans, in their greediness, ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil before their time. This led to them gaining knowledge they were not prepared for, and as a result led to death which is the separation of our soul from our body, an unnatural event.

As a result, we have lived out our lives in a world of pain and toil, growing into the maturity that God gives us through his grace but without the ease of the Garden. God will recapitulate all things at the end of time, as effected through the Incarnation and Second Coming, restoring things to a better state than before we fell. Because we fell, God’s Incarnation as a man also involves his suffering and dying, so that he may taste of all we have tasted and may be a sacrifice for our sins and the conqueror of death.

This narrative, this world of recapitulation, makes more sense to me than a world where God told us not to eat the tree through reverse psychology so that we would gain “moral capacity, the ability to know right and wrong and to CARE.” That eating from the tree then and there was God’s plan. And if eating from the tree was God’s plan all along, why did he proceed to curse the man, woman, and snake? Furthermore, if Gen 3 teaches neither Fall nor Curse, why is there a curse in it? Interpreting the curse may be difficult, but denying it is avoiding what is there before us on the page.

This view of Gen 3 leaves us in a world that is as it was meant to be. A world with a God who wants cancer and war and hatred and violence. Why? Because there is no fall. We are living our lives exactly according to God’s plan. With the fall, we have a frame of reference, that this beautiful, tragic world is great but could be greater, and was meant to be so. With the fall, we have redemption. Without the fall, the Cross is meaningless, redemption impossible.

With the fall, we also see why it is that we do not do what we want to do.

Playing Nice

I would like to call out rey for not playing nice. Endlessly referring to one’s opponents in a debate as “illiterate” is not nice or fair. Calling their ideas “lies” is not fair.

Assuming that your opponent is one thing and then writing from that frame of reference based upon a single thing he wrote one evening in less than half an hour — that’s just bad argument. Especially when said opponent has an entire website right in front of you that could show you several things, such as not being a Calvinist, such as having read a certain amount of Patristic literature, such as knowing Latin and Greek. Just for starters.

Also, saying, “Well duh,” does not count as playing nice.

And talking down to people throughout the entire comment is not playing nice.

Why play nice? Because playing nice helps people listen to you. Not playing nice makes them decide to take you to town and have many knee-jerk reactions to everything you say. People get angry all the time at Augustine for not playing nice. I would argue that, while clearly being as heretical a Pelagian as ever there was, you have played the game as an Augustinian this round, rey. Too bad.

If you wish to argue with me about Predestination & Freewill, my thoughts on John Cassian’s doctrine are here and here.

Alexandros

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Alexandros (the one nearest Konstantinos in the left-hand cluster) had presented his case before the gathering of overseers, explaining why Arios’ answer to his question was not acceptable. It had been long years since that fateful moment when the repercussions of Arios’ thoughts had come forth.

It all came out at the regular gathering of Alexandros and his elders. Alexandros took his role as overseer seriously. He knew that in earlier days the overseer would have been able to meet with the faithful individually. Now, though, the numbers of believers were too great, and that was the job of the elders under Alexandros’ charge. Nonetheless, he had had hands laid on him, and it was his threefold appointment to guide that flock, to uphold right teaching and theology, and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.[1] The elders did the last two things on a regular basis with most people for him. The Lord’s Supper was the normative occasion for worship, and at worship would the elders teach the people.

Thus, it was the responsibility of Alexandros to ensure that those into whose hands he had placed the spiritual health of his flock were teaching them the truth of the Anointed Jesus. It was also, he believed, part of the task of the overseer to pray with the elders and encourage them on their own spiritual journey. Alexandros took his spiritual authority and responsibility very seriously, for these were the matters of the greatest importance, never to be taken lightly.

And so they had gathered those long years before. After they had eaten the Lord’s Supper together, they sat down in a circle in the nave of the new basilica-style house of worship, serving the original congregation that Holy Markos had founded when he brought the Good News to Aigyptos. All eyes were upon Alexandros as he looked down at them.

“We believe in one God, and Jesus is the Word of that God, my brothers. As Holy Iohannes tells us, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him, all things were made; nothing that has been made was made without Him.’[2] Many who read the book of Proverbs see in the person of Wisdom this same Word of God. If this is the case, how can it be that Wisdom says, ‘The Lord created me a beginning of his ways, for his works’?”[3]

Konstantinos had told Alexandros in a letter that this was where he went wrong; that asking such questions was itself impious — and Arios had been wrong to answer. They ought, Konstantinos had told them, simply to make peace with one another.[4] Konstantinos was a politician and a warrior, just barely redeemed from darkest superstition and still minting coins with the Unconquered Sun on them.[5] He did not realise the deep import of these questions as the theologians pondered God and meditated on His great glory. Furthermore, the Assembly’s beliefs rested upon Scripture. Coming to an understanding of difficult passages of Scripture helped believers remain strong in the faith; if one could not trust the Scriptures, one could very well turn back to the worship of the Unconquered Sun.[6]

Furthermore, the young elder Arios was present; Arios had formerly been mixed up with Meletios,[7] and some Meletians who had an axe to grind had told Alexandros that Arios was teaching some unusual things regarding Jesus’ divinity.[8] Alexandros wanted to be sure his preachers would preach the faith handed down; he wanted to be sure that the rumours about Arios were untrue. Arios had a reputation for being a good preacher and expounder of the Scriptures at the Baukalis,[9] the house of God where he tended the flock.

Then Arios opened his mouth and formed words about the Word. He was determined at any cost to keep Jesus the Word subordinate to the Father and to do it all in a combination of Neo-Platonism and Aristotelian divisions. The accusations of the Meletians were true.

“The verse from Proverbs means that there was when he was not, Father. The Word is the Wisdom of God, and this passage clearly states that the Wisdom of God is a created being. This makes sense, for as Origen taught, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit each have a separate hypostasis.[10] If they each have a separate hypostasis, then they are distinct beings. If they are distinct beings, then only one of them can be God. God the Father is that one God, and He will never share his glory with another, as it says in Isaiah. The Word and the Spirit are, thus, creations; they are like God the Father’s hands, active in the creation and preservation of the universe. But they are not God Himself.”

“If they are not God himself, why does Holy Iohannes say that the Word is God?” the blessed servant Athanasios[11] had asked.

“This is a good question. Holy Iohannes is being rhetorical here, my brothers. He is not being literal. The Word is given the word God as a title only; he is not literally God. Being a creature, he is capable of change, as are we all, but of his own free will He continues good so long as he wishes. He is capable of change even as we are, but God, foreknowing that he would remain good, gave him in anticipation the glory which as man and in consequence of his virtue he afterward possessed. God from foreknowledge of his works made him become what he afterward was.”[12]

“Could not all three of them be, um, different manifestations of God?” asked one young elder.

Many eyebrows had risen at that. Alexandros shook his head slowly.

“No,” said another, “for they are mentioned as being distinct persons by Jesus Himself in the Good News according Holy Matthaios when He tells us to plunge people into water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.[13] Therefore, since they all have distinct names, they are not simply manifestations of the one God. They are, as Arios noted, three hypostases.”

“Exactly,” said Arios. “And a difference of name means that there is a difference of substance. An apple is not a tree, is it? The Father is, thus, not the Son. If the distinction between apple and tree were false, we could give them both the same name. But if we call Father and Son by different names, they are not the same thing. And if they are not the same thing, and if the Father is God, then the Son cannot be said to be God in the same way. I do not deny that he is a divine being, but his divinity is not inherent to his being; his divinity comes from the Father and is only partial. He is not truly God in his substance and essence.”[14]

“You would dare say that the Anointed Jesus, the Word, the Son of God, whom the Scriptures themselves call God, is not eternal with the Father?” Alexandros had asked. He could say nothing more. He could not argue. He could only stare in shock at this man.

“Yes,” answered Arios. “As I said at the beginning, there was when he was not. The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. As he dwelt among us, subordinating his will — as, indeed, his own being was so subordinated — to the Father’s, he improved, he resisted temptation. This divine Word came to mediate to us the grace of God the Father, for creation itself, so weak, fallen, feeble, sinful, cannot endure direct relationship with God Himself.”[15]

“Well, we see that you do not believe that Jesus is fully God,” said Athanasios. “Now it sounds that as some semi-divine being enfleshed he is not fully human.”

“This is true,” said Arios, sitting tall.

“If He is not fully God, He cannot redeem us or save us,” said Athanasios. “If He is not fully human, He cannot live a perfect human life and serve as a ransom for many; He cannot offer us a model to live by. His perfection is useless if He is not fully man. His sacrifice is empty if He is not fully God. What you offer us cannot conquer sin. It cannot conquer death. All it can do is feebly tackle philosophers’ questions. The true Anointed One, however, can tackle the philosophers’ questions with might and strength, as well as standing astride sin and death. We eat the flesh of the real man, Jesus. We drink the blood of the real God, Jesus. He is alive, and He is eternal with the Father, true God of true God. I shall not quote the Scriptures to you, impious preacher. You have read them; you know them. Reread them and meditate upon them!”

Once Arios’ teaching became public, it spread beyond Alexandreia. Two years before Nikaia they had excommunicated him and condemned his teachings in Alexandreia. The next year, Antiokheia did likewise, also condemning Eusebios of Kaisereia as a follower of Arios pernicious teachings. And now they were at Nikaia to bring down Arios’ teachings once and for all.

Alexandros was drawn from his reverie by Alexandros of Byzantion, next to whom he was sitting.

“Alexandros,” he whispered, “what is your vote?”

“About what?” he asked, looking about at the assembled crowd.

“Do you agree that an overseer should be chosen by all the overseers of his province, with a minimum of three present if they cannot all make it, but the consent of the others being sent in by letter?”

“What?”

“The statement we’re voting on is: It is by all means proper that an overseer should be appointed by all the overseers in the province; but should this be difficult, either on account of urgent necessity or because of distance, three at least should meet together, and the suffrages of the absent overseers also being given and communicated in writing, then the ordination should take place. But in every province the ratification of what is done should be left to the Metropolitan.”[16]

“Sure. Yeah. Otherwise we’d have Donatos or Meletios all over again or something, wouldn’t we? There are rogue overseers in Aigyptos, men consecrated by Meletios.”

“Then raise your hand,” the overseer of Byzantion said, gesturing at his own raised hand. “Did you think I was just blessing everyone with this upraised arm?”

Alexandros chuckled and raised his hand to show his assent.


[1] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London, Peguin: 1963), p. 253.

[2] John 1:1-3.

[3] Proverbs 8:22.

[4] Eusebius, Life of Constantine. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall trans. and commentary. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), p. 118.

[5] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (London, Penguin: 1967), pp. 126-127.

[6] Chadwick notes that a bishop of Troy had done just that but fails to mention which one, p. 127. Emperor Julian the Apostate would do so as well.

[7] Meletius of Lycopolis was a schismatic in the early fourth century who was ordaining people in Alexandria against the current bishop’s wishes. His actions were dealt with at Nicaea as well. (For more, see the Catholic Encyclopedia)

[8] Hubertus Drobner, The Fathers of the Church, trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), p. 237. W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church (Peabody, Mass.: Fortress Press, 1982), p. 136.

[9] Drobner wonders if Arius’ church got its name due to its shape, a baukalis being ‘a sturdy earthenware vessel with a narrow bottleneck’, p. 236.

[10] You try to find a good English word for hypostasis. Drobner, 236.

[11] The chances of St. Athanasius being at the event in question are very slim; if he was there at all, his participation in it would also be slim.

[12] From the words “is capable…” onwards, quoting Athanasius quoting Arius as recorded by W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church, pp.135-136.

[13] Matthew 28:19.

[14] This development of Arius’ logic is from Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils and Christ, (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1989), p. 107.

[15] Frend, 135.

[16] Canon IV of the Council of Nicaea.

Origen and the Development of Orthodoxy

I have been reading Origen’s On First Principles recently, and a thought came to me which had come to me before (you can thank me for being suitably vague later). This newly-recurring thought is that Origen and “Origenism” are the formative source and root for Christian controversy and Orthodoxy.

Now, you’re probably going to tell me that it’s actually biblical interpretation, such as the interrelation of Proverbs 8:22 with John 1. And you’d be right. But whose biblical interpretation do you think everyone was arguing about?

Origen’s.

Case One: Arianism. Origen’s Christology, as represented both in On First Principles and his Commentary on John is subordinationist, and, although he does not believe, “There was when he was not,” he at times calls Christ “created” and could be read through an Arian viewpoint, especially given the lack of homoousios theology. However, in On First Principles, Origen is also fond of the image of the Son being like the rays of light from the sun — this is an image favoured by Athanasius, the great opponent of Arianism. Hm…

Case Two: Pneumatomachianism (aka Macedonianism, literally “Spirit-fighter-ism“). Origen’s theology of the Holy Spirit is relatively undeveloped, in my opinion. When, in On First Principles, he comes to discussing the Spirit, he gets himself sidetracked with a discussion about spirit more broadly. He once again has a subordinationist view, saying that the Father’s being overflows into the Son who overflows into the Spirit.  The Spirit at times feels more like a personification of spirit, not necessarily a self-subsisting person or hypostasis.

This ambiguity of the treatment of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity ended up with Origenists such as the Pneumatomachians arguing against the Spirit’s divinity and other Origenists such as Didymus the Blind in On the Holy Spirit arguing for the Spirit’s divinity.

Case Three: The First Origenist Controversy. This controversy was specifically about Origen and some of his less … mainline … teachings and his approach to Sacred Scripture; some people (Epiphanius of Salamis, Jerome) were certain that he was an out-and-out heretic and deserved condemnation, and that his allegorical interpretations went too far. Others (John Chrysostom, John Cassian, Rufinus of Aquileia) argued that Origen was largely orthodox. In the heat of it all, Chrysostom ended up dead, Rufinus and Jerome ruined their friendship, and the golden age of Egyptian monasticism was gone forever.

His defenders found precisely where he was worth fighting for, and his opponents found the places where he was worth attacking. What constitutes orthodoxy was, as a result, more clearly defined, but, thanks, in the West at least, largely to Rufinus’ translations of Origen and John Cassian’s work in Gaul, allegorical readings of Scripture were never fully lost.

Case Four: The Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory Thaumaturgus was a student of Origen, and the Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) were students of Thaumaturgus. They were also involved in the later stages of both the Arian and Pneumatomachian Controversies. Gregory of Nyssa was able to produce theological writings after the triumph of Nicene Orthodoxy in 381.

Within the bounds of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan understanding of the Trinity, these three Orthodox Fathers par excellence produced Trinitarian theology that follows the trajectory set out by Origen. Origen, unlike his Platonist predecessors, rooted the being of God (His ontology) in being a Father, not in being a Creator. This meant that there never was a time when the Father lacked the Son. It also meant that the Godhead is a distinct being from creation who depends not at all upon the created order. It also means that the very root and source of the universe is rooted in communion (see John Zizioulas, Being As Communion to have your mind blown on this count). These were points taken up by Athanasius, but their nuances were really explored and set forth for us by the Cappadocians.

Case Five: The Second Origenist Controversy. This was a controversy about a number of Origen’s cosmological statements that were being espoused by a group of “fanatical” Palestinian monks. In 553, in meetings before the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II), Justinian and the Fathers determined that certain Origenist statements were outside the bounds of orthodoxy, and in the Acts of the Council itself, Origen and Evagrius are condemned outright as heretics.

This meant that such teachings as celestial bodies having souls or apocatastasis (seriously, get into Patristics for the awesome terminology) which teaches that at the end of all things God will reconcile all rational beings to Himself (presumably the Devil as well — Evagrius certainly thinks so) — such teachings are officially outside of orthodoxy. It also means that very few of Origen’s writings survive, and far fewer of Evagrius Ponticus’ — although one of his writings survived under St. Basil the Great’s name, another under Nilus. People will circulate what they wish, no matter how many books you burn.

In the end, so many of the big controversies of the early centuries of Christianity revolved around Origen, his understanding of Scripture and of God, and the Church’s understanding of Origen. He’s not exactly one of the early Christian theologians for one to start with, but he’s definitely worth reading, and certainly important.